Monday, March 2, 2009

The first steps

Learning to fly can be complicated. I first started looking at flight training when I was still in high school. The process was extremely confusing. So many terms and acronyms were tossed around. The prices varied widely. I gave up.

When I really started looking into it after college. Nothing changed! Still full of acronyms and the prices varied even more.

For the most part one has to have 40 hours of flight time  (for Part 61) (which includes several specific training events) to earn a Private Pilot License (PPL). The hours can be reduced to 35 hours under part 141. I gave a brief explanation of Part 61 and Part 141 here.

In the real world VERY few people earn a PPL in the minimum required flight time. Why? Well everyone learns at a different pace. Looking back in my logbook I got my PPL with 50 hours. I consider myself average (at least for this reality I am a bad assed pilot...with the sticker to prove it!) so for those getting ready to make the jump to flying and looking into prices consider 50 hours for your PPL.


I bought these stickers and gave them to all of my students..and kept a few for myself!

To this day I still remember the first time I was truly at the controls of a plane. It was nothing like Microsoft Flight Simulator! Instead of my nice air-conditioned office and comfy leather chair I was being bounced around by thermals in a cramped cockpit while sitting on a somewhat padded chair. And I loved it.

I chose to do my training at my own pace. Back then I worked a 40 hour a week job in a cubicle. I worked 7AM to 4PM. Lucky for me I worked just 5 miles from the airport. From 4:30PM to 8PMish I would attend ground school or fly. Flying around in May wasn’t much fun as it was hot and bumpy. I was near the quitting point until my instructor took me for my first night flight. By golly the air gets smooth at night. Before this I was frustrated by the thermals. Trying to practice slow flight or steep turns while being bumped around is stressful.

I eventually got used to the thermals and the heat. Looking back through my logbook is bringing back quite a few memories. On one of my solo cross countries my Instructor told me I had to navigate to four different airports with the longest leg being 60 miles. I only had to land at 3 of the 4 airports. The winds were forecasted to be light and mostly down the runways. So much for forecast.

I took off and headed to my first airport. About 15 miles out I tuned in the weather and wrote them down. The winds were higher than forecasted giving me a pretty stiff (for the time anyway) 10 knot direct crosswind. I lined up and landed right on centerline. The plane then began turning off the runway. I forgot to put in the crosswind correction! I eased the nose back toward the centerline with maybe 2 to 3 feet to spare before going off the side and hitting runway lights. I taxied back to the end and took a breather.

I took off and headed to the next airport. Again a few miles out I listened to the weather. The winds were even higher! I flew over the center of the airport and saw the windsock straight out directly perpendicular to the runway. Hmmm yeah....NEXT!

The third airport was the only towered airport. I called up the tower and was cleared into the traffic pattern. My whole life I thought pilots and air traffic control talked fast. I talk fast by nature. I requested three full stop and taxi back landings. After my first, while taxing back to the runway, the tower told me to slow down my speech, as he couldn't understand me. What? much for that theory of mine.

Landings complete I headed back to my home airport. The whole flight was 2 1/2 hours. That's quite a bit of time to be flying around in the heat by yourself.

Around the 45-hour mark my Instructor felt I was almost ready, but I needed a little more polish. Just shy of 50 hours he signed me off.

Check rides are stressful for just about every pilot. Even Captains I fly with now get stressed during training events. The very first check ride a pilot has is incredibly stressful, as they have no idea what to expect.

My examiner was a very nice gentleman by the name of Keith Weems. The morning of the check ride I had a McDonalds sausage, egg and cheese McGriddle (this will be important later).

I met Mr. Weems in his office and presented all my documents. The oral was pretty straightforward. My Instructor prepped me well and I studied more than I had to. Once the oral was done we headed out to the plane. The skies were clear and the wind was very light.

My Instructor told me to pretend Mr. Weems was just along for a ride and not to examine me. I tried...but my legs were shaking like crazy. Thankfully the vibration of the engine was stronger than the vibration from my legs.

We took to the skies and preformed all the required maneuvers. I remember my turns around a point being a little weak....but passable.

The last thing I had to do was a short field landing. I was good at these. I lined up for the runway and advised Mr. Weems I was going to use the 1000-foot marking as my landing point rather than the end of the runway. I couldn't land before them and had I think up to 150 past them to land in. Everything looked perfect as I crossed the threshold. I flared and then it happened....I ballooned up. I pulled the power all the way out and let it sink again. There were no doubts whatsoever when we landed just on the edge of the 1000 foot markings. It was one of my firmest landings thus far.

Mr. Weems made some grumblings and said to go ahead and taxi off the runway. I was feeling uneasy. "Did I fail? Was the landing too rough? Didn't I make my spot?" all ran trough my head.

After I turned the plane off Mr. Weems asked me how I did. I told him I think I did okay and that the short field landing could have been smoother. He told me to put the plane up and meet him inside. Now I was really down. I thought I had failed. I was expecting him to tell me pass or fail. This whole "meet me inside" thing was grey.

My instructor was waiting a few steps away and helped me push the plane in the parking spot. I told him about the flight and that Mr.Weems told me to "meet me inside."

We both walked up to the office and he went in to talk to Mr. Weems. After a few minutes he came out and told me the good news....I passed. I needed work on turns around a point and that my short field landing was interesting....but both were within limits.

On July 18th, 2006 I woke up a mere mortal....I went to bed a Private Pilot.

The first steps to a PPL aren't easy...but it's worth it.

Oh yeah ever since then before EVERY check ride I have had I eat the exact same breakfast.....sausage, egg and cheese McGriddle from McDonalds. I have yet to fail. I even had my students eat them before their check rides. If they ever announce they are discontinuing them I am going to buy a bunch and freeze them. Can't mess up a good thing.



  1. I can sympathise with your flight test nervousness. I'm just about done my (Canadian) PPL and it's taking 3 weeks just to get the flight test done! I won't bore you with every detail but the weather was bad, and then the next week the engine started running rough. Hopefully the third week will be the charm. I blog about all my training if anyone cares to have a look:

  2. Oh, and by the way, awesome blog . Even though you're south of the border, and I'm north, it's a great inside look at the industry I hope to get into. I've been flying for a year and half and am going to be working towards my CPL soon. Keep up the great posts. And pictures too!

  3. Have a look at this innovative way to be come a pilot for the very successful low cost carrier, Air Asia, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


If you are a spammer....your post will never show up. Move along.